Government News Analysis

Bear facts laid bare

This coming May, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will make a historic visit to Moscow. He will be the guest of Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and will get to see first hand a country that could strengthen the political and economic superstructure of the Philippines in everything from foreign policy and national security to trade and cultural ties. It will be springtime in Moscow, a time for new beginnings. But there’s a small problem; the Filipino perception of Russia – those lingering Cold-War doubts of befriending the Bear.

And they’re not insignificant. A 12 January Pulse Asia survey revealed that 58% of the Philippine population distrusts Russia; just 38% look favourably on her.

Yet, when they’re boiled down these concerns seem totally irrational. Russia has never invaded, much less occupied, the Philippines as the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese did – three countries which (with the exception of the US over recent months) have maintained deep ties with the Philippines and its people. Russia has never been on the opposite side to the Philippines in any conflict at any time in history; its foreign policies have never impinged on the archipelago even slightly.

Russia has never sought to test the Philippines’ island territories with their potential mineral wealth in the waters of its exclusive economic zones. China has – and yet Beijing has shown that it’s a good friend to Manila, despite that. In Duterte’s words: “… a friend closer than a brother”.  Furthermore, Moscow will not get involved with such disputes. It has no interests in the South China Sea and will not take the side of either party; it has no dog in this fight.

Unlike the Chinese and Taiwanese triads, the Russia Mafia has never sought to take turf in the Philippines. Russian Navy marines on the few trips they’ve made to the Philippines have been disciplined and respectful – a marked contrast to what Filipinos have come to expect from visits by US Navy personnel in and around the bars of Subic and Olongapo.

So what’s at the root of Philippine skepticism when it comes to thoughts of a Russian alliance?

In a word, Russophobia – the fear and dislike of Russians and their foreign policy. And the biggest source of that has been America. So now it’s time to explode a few myths.

In 1985, cinema audiences in the Philippines, as elsewhere, were treated to a Hollywood blockbuster, Rocky IV, in which American boxing champ, Rocky Balboa, takes on Soviet Army infantry captain and Olympic boxing gold medalist, Ivan Drago, in a brutal fight in  Moscow. Balboa, the under-dog; honourable. Drago, cold-blooded; steroid-enhanced – the American film-maker’s personification of the two countries. Inevitably, the smaller, righteous Balboa defeats the corrupt Goliath Drago – a metaphor for virtuous American values conquering a contemptible Russia.

More recently, progressive-Left-addicted Hollywood offered the 2015 release, Child 44 – another movie rich in anti-Russian imagery with its borscht-thick portrayals of Russian corruption and brutality. Russia banned this one outright for its malicious depiction of the Motherland and her people. Culture Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, said the movie portrayed citizens as “physical and moral subhumans, a bloody mass of orcs and ghouls,” adding that the film makes Russia out to be “not a country but Mordor [the Dark Land of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth].”

Down the decades, Filipino big-screen audiences have been fed a regular diet from Hollywood’s well-stocked larder of pro-America, anti-Russia flicks, while small-screen audiences have gorged on news and documentaries pumped in from the States as local media continually mimicked the same presentation; the same editorial line.

Certainly all this will have played some part in building skepticism for any future alliance between the Philippine Eagle and the Russian Bear. Not that any had ever been anticipated.

Throughout the Cold War and for much of the time since – especially latterly, following US President Barack Obama’s magnificent failure in US-Russia foreign relations – Washington’s deprecation of Moscow has rarely tired. To day, Russia ranks as America’s arch foe – bigger than China, bigger than Iran; bigger than North Korea. And Filipinos, like everyone else on the planet, have been told how dangerous the Russians are.

Washington has re-energised Russophobia and is horrified that a formerly obedient one-time colony is contemplating entering into a pact with the Son of Soviet. For Obama and his autocratic regime this is nothing short of a pact with the devil. But what’s been easy for them is feeding into long-held Filipino fears and collect public opinion to their view.

Part of the problem is the enduring notion that the Russian Federation is really little more than the old Soviet Union – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – in a business suit. Like China, however, Russia threw off the communist shackles of central planning and command-system economics nearly a quarter of a century ago and has increasingly embraced the free-market ever since.

Both these countries today are mixed economies with reduced public ownership and growing private sectors. With the exception of certain industries – energy and defence being prime among them – private companies and entrepreneurs in Russia operate within the global marketplace in much the same way as those of any full-blooded capitalist nation.

The fact is that Filipinos have very little first-hand experience of Russia and her citizens. But there has been some.

Going back 67 years, the unlikely town of Guiuan on the island of Tubabao in Eastern Samar provided a refuge for some 5,000 Russian’s fleeing Mao Zedong’s newly established People’s Republic of China. These were White Russians, supporters of the Tsar who had fled to the Mainland following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

They came to the Philippines – the only country to answer the International Refugee Organisation’s call to give them sanctuary – in ageing boats of doubtful seaworthiness. And though they stayed there only briefly, the contact between Guiuan and Russia has endured.

When super Typhoon Haiyan hit that region in 2013 – Guiuan was devastated – Russians recalled the hospitality which the townsfolk had extended to their exiled countrymen and raised money from their communities around the world to help the storm’s victims.  Some weeks before Haiyan struck, a small group of Russian Orthodox pilgrims had gone to Guiuan to attend the first Orthodox service in the town for 60 years. According to the visiting group’s leader, Orthodox priest, Father Seraphim Bell: “Members of the local community were very enthusiastic about our visit. They expressed hopes Russians would begin to return for pilgrimages to Tubabao”.

That, then, is actual contact between these two peoples. It’s not the stuff of film or propaganda; it’s the stuff of life. And what’s being put together by Manila and Moscow promises to improve life for people across the archipelago.

Russia has already agreed to help the Philippines’ struggling agricultural exports; it will purchase US$2.5 billion dollars worth of produce over the next 12 months – compare that to 2015’s total trade turnover of US$0.58 billion. It has also promised investments in energy and infrastructure – as well as giving assistance in areas of machine engineering and industrial modernisation Railway planning and construction especially long-range railways, as well as monorails, light transit transport system and port infrastructure are also on the list. So is tourism; so are opportunities for Filipino workers in Russia. A whole raft of bilateral agreements on cooperation in different fields is being built.

Add to all that a keen desire to assist in the Philippines’ counter-terrorism effort, anti-drug operations and law enforcement and there’s a much clearer view of how these two countries can become close. Furthermore, unlike the US, all this is being offered on an ideology-free basis. There are no strings concerning carbon emissions or human rights.

Russia’s Ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev, puts it like this:  “We have no disputes, no political contradictions or differences. What’s needed now is develop cooperation in practical terms, to elaborate and implement specific concrete projects in different fields. It’s time for the Russians to discover the Philippines and vice versa. It’s time for the Filipinos to discover the Russians.”

He also made this point. ”Trust is related to knowledge. If people don’t know our country…how can they trust us?”

In 1949, the White Russians didn’t steal Tubabao; they didn’t erect a Russian crime ghetto in Guiuan. They built two churches. The people warmed to them and would have them back tomorrow. Had Hollywood got hold of this story it would be very different. It would be about a Russian invasion complete with rape scenes, gratuitous butchery and lots of blood. It would be “based on actual events” – just like Child 44. And Filipino audiences as they left the cinema would have had their worse fears reconfirmed.